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OPINION: The smartphone, grandkids, and the dangers of change

Today, we have towns that are not growing and will struggle to keep up with the rising operating costs that 10,000 small decisions produced.
David Robinson, economist, Laurentian University/director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

Have you ever said, “Where did that building come from?” or “I didn’t know there was a Tims on that corner?” If you have, then you have been bushwhacked by incremental change. We all have. It is part of life.

The kids grew up too fast, suddenly you have some grey hair, or you have to buy a new fridge because no one makes a replacement for the drip tray anymore. Your new computer just has USB-C ports, but your backup drive is a USB-2. And you don’t recognize the neighbourhood you grew up in. 

So you wish you had more pictures of your kids growing up – and of yourself when you were younger. And maybe you wish you had more pictures of your town and your neighbourhood.

Change is often a good thing. Does anyone really want the kids to be two years old forever? The new cars are more reliable than any ’57 Chev, especially in winter. Fridges are more energy-efficient. So are windows. The corner store may have disappeared, but Loblaws offers a hundred times as many items. Choosing soap now takes a PhD, but you can get packages of Indian food almost as easily as Kraft Dinner. In the age of the iPhone you have 400 pictures of your grandkids, and they haven’t even started school.

But it is also true that when things and places change, you lose a little bit of yourself. Some of us had wonderful experiences when we were very young, playing in ditches and small streams. Sometimes just a glimpse of water running in a grassy ditch will jailbreak those memories. But when did you last see water running in a ditch? Someone paved paradise and put up a parking lot, and townhouses stand between you and your childhood.

Change sneaks up on places, too. I recently stumbled on a 2002 picture book that shows how American small towns gradually slipped from being walkable, neighbourly communities to oceans of automobile-centred sprawl.

The book “Above and Beyond: Visualizing Change in Small Towns and Rural Areas” is full of aerial photographs of towns before and after 50 years of development. The result is a book that I think every planner and every town councillor, maybe even every citizen, should buy and read regularly.  

The book’s lesson is that most communities grow by allowing tiny changes, without paying any attention to how these changes add up. Together, these tiny steps transform both town and country. They change people as well, by gradually erasing all their links with their own past. 

The authors aren’t claiming change is bad. They do claim many of us would prefer something different than what we are getting. Traditional development patterns produce more compact cities and towns. Less road and more homes. The pattern in the last half of the 20th century has been driven by rapid population growth and the automobile. Growth jumped town boundaries and basically ran wild on the surrounding land. It left a legacy of expensive suburbs, decaying town cores and environmental loss.

Northern communities sprawled, too, leaving small populations with lots of costly infrastructure. With our low population densities, Northerners now have to spend more, per capita, on roads, sewers, transit, and hydro poles than our southern neighbours. Growing towns often financed infrastructure out of tax revenue they hoped to get from future growth. Unfortunately for the next generation of Northerners, population growth has pretty much stopped up here.

Today, we have towns that are not growing and will struggle to keep up with the rising operating costs that 10,000 small decisions produced. The ideal solution, according to many planners and economists, is to retrench, pushing density in town cores and blocking further development in the outer areas. In other words, they say, go back to traditional patterns of town development.

But that may not be possible. People in outlying areas still want their roads, and they don’t want to suddenly start paying the full cost of the roads they use. Landowners and developers want to keep subdividing their properties. Councils want to keep allowing the same old incremental changes that have led us to the verge of bankruptcy.